Cameron’s statement on aid could worsen human rights and governance in Malawi

At long last the Commonwealth is being forced to face up to the appalling human rights record among some of its member states – particularly the criminalisation of homosexuality. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron has made it clear that Commonwealth member states refusing to decriminalise homosexuality risk losing British aid. The Prime Minister has also warned Sri Lanka to improve its human rights record or face boycotts when it hosts the next Commonwealth gathering in 2013.

Despite his strong message, the Prime Minister acknowledges that it will not be easy for member states the decriminalise homosexuality due to “deep prejudice” in some countries. He was right, not only because of prevailing prejudice but also because of the naivety of Cameron’s approach to the issue. His emphasis on homosexuality is a short-sighted policy and inadvertently discriminatory. A country either respects human rights or it doesn’t. Countries that respect all other rights but not those of homosexuals cannot and must not be considered as respecting human rights.

Bishop Bvumbwe: No to gay aid

While the Prime Minister clearly has the right intentions, using decriminalisation of homosexuality as a condition for receiving aid is counterproductive. You cannot change people’s attitudes, religious and cultural beliefs through coercive means. Forcing people to trade their beliefs for aid can only portray increasingly autocratic regimes in countries like Uganda and Malawi as victims of “Western imperialism”. This helps these regimes mask broader issues of human rights (in general), poor governance, disregard for rule of law, and endemic corruption.

The Malawi government and the country’s religious leaders have been quick to respond to the Prime Minister’s statement. The government’s spokeswoman, Patricia Kaliati, has described Cameron’s statement as “unfortunate”. Without explaining why Malawi has returned some colonial era laws, such as criminalising homosexuality, the spokeswoman pointed out that laws criminalising homosexuality in Malawi are a legacy of British colonial rule, which lasted between 1891 and 1964.

A spokesman for the influential Malawi Council of Churches Bishop Joseph Bvumbwe has argued that the West cannot be preaching tolerance while being intolerant to other people’s beliefs: “if they respect divergent views in the Western democracies, they also respect divergent views in Africa”, said Bvumbwe.

For some time now the Malawi government has been using the unpopular issue of homosexuality as an oxymoron to hide its own failures and mask the real reasons some of its highly valuable donors have cut or suspended aid and funding of various projects. The arrest late last year of a gay couple, Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, for allegedly having an illegal wedding, which provoked international condemnation, has been a pretext by the Malawi government to show its people that the donor community is out to promote what the government calls “gay rights”.

Malawi government’s emphasis on “gay rights” and not on human rights is strikingly similar to Cameron’s decision to concentrate on homosexuality and not all other human rights violations. Hitherto Cameron’s statement, no one from the donor community had ever mentioned decriminalisation of homosexuality as a condition for receiving aid. By attaching decriminalisation of homosexuality to aid, Cameron has inadvertently provided Malawi government with a reference point that it needed all along as an excuse for its own failures to govern.

Billy Mayaya, a Malawian Human Rights Activist warns out that: “aid should be linked to the broader issue of good governance and the consolidation of democracy. To isolate the issue of gay rights is only going to open a can of worms in the already deteriorating diplomatic impasse between Malawi and the United Kingdom. A holistic approach is more ideal in that it will allow for a more incremental understanding of the need for Malawi to internalize and meet it’s wider human rights obligations by observing the indivisibility of rights.”

Malawi Civil Society groups and local NGOs that are doing tremendous work holding the government to account have been on the receiving end of the government’s smear campaign. They are accused left, right and centre of getting money from the donor community to “promote gay rights” in Malawi. Yet the truth is that these groups are demanding basic things that every government should provide for its people without having to fight or die for it.

In the absence of an effective opposition, owing it in part to President Mutharika’s huge parliamentary majority, these groups are seeking an explanation for perennial power cuts, persistent lack of fuel and foreign exchange and exorbitant tax on basic food items such as milk.

Chancellor College, a constituent of the University of Malawi, has been closed for nearly eight months now, as lecturers refuse to teach without a guarantee from the government that it will no longer have spies in classrooms, as it was the case when a political science lecturer Blessings Chisinga was summoned by the Inspector General of Police for ‘questioning’ after a remark the lecturer allegedly made that compared Malawi’s social-political landscape to that of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. These were paramount issues that ignited widespread demonstrations last summer, which left 20 people dead – killed by state security.

These are issues that Malawi government wants everyone to ignore because it exposes failures of the government. Consequently, concentrating on the single issue of decriminalisation homosexuality could mean ignoring worsening social, political, economic, and human rights situation in the country.

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